The power of words

I have recently experienced two occasions when a single word has caused debate. The debate has centred on whether the words in question are appropriate to the audience in terms of persuading them to behave differently.

In both cases the audience is employees. In both cases, the organization in question requires employees to change behaviour in order to achieve efficiencies (do more with less) which are deemed pivotal to survival in this age of austerity and limited resources.

One organization is a charity. The other is a UK National Health Service Foundation Trust.

The words in question: in the charity, the word is ‘commercial’. In the NHS, the word is ‘productivity’.

In both cases, these words have met with implacable resistance. They are not only not part of the vocabulary; they are words of an ideological enemy. Many people who work for the two organizations do so precisely because, at some level, their values eschew the idea that care could or should be constrained by financial considerations.

As a Board member in both organizations, I have to grapple with some stark financial realities. My charity is in a precarious position. Grant funding is drying up; contracted services lose us money. We are fishing in a donations pool that is rapidly drying out. One of our best hopes for securing our future is to attract private customers – hence our need to be more commercial. We are competing against other businesses. We have to provide an excellent service at a price which makes us a surplus which will eventually (once we’ve paid back the money we borrowed to survive) be reinvested in charitable activities.

To me, that is the reality. The end justifies the means. And I have no problem with the means (if that means being more ‘commercial) because I’ve worked in the private sector most of my life. To me, commercial just means understanding how to apply one’s resources as effectively as possible in order to achieve good outcomes for customers and a surplus for reinvestment.

To others, it obviously means something far more sinister and threatening.

So, do we use a less sinister and threatening word when communicating with employees; or do we use it to convey the nature of the reality we find ourselves in? How do we take employees with us when we need their behaviours to change, but they deny, consciously or unconsciously, that the platform beneath their feet is burning?

It could be argued that this clash of words (and the ideas they represent) is a failure of the two organizations to engage their employees over a long period about what is happening in the world in terms of diminishing financial resources. Part of that engagement would necessitate a shift in the use of language.

All very well, but language is enmeshed in our beliefs of how we each see the world. Organizations are not necessarily trusted by their employees – they tend to want different things. Productivity is about losing jobs and making me work harder, isn’t it? Commercial is about being focused on money at the expense of people, isn’t it?

To tell an employee that s/he is working on a burning platform is not enough. They have to feel the heat and smell the acrid smoke.

My view is not to be apologetic about using language that one part of the organization (the Board) uses to mediate the (often grim) realities it faces. If others feel uncomfortable then it is up to Boards to communicate the grim realities in plain language rather than find acceptable stand-ins that blunt the message and which allow employees to continue as if the need to use resources efficiently and effectively is somehow for the birds, not for them.


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